The World Finally Knows How Leaders Reacted to Margaret Thatcher’s Resignation

The Iron Lady glistens in newly released papers about her last years as Prime Minister

Margaret Thatcher and Bush
Thatcher visits with President Bush in Aspen, Colorado in 1990 during a diplomatic reception. News of her resignation lit up diplomatic channels around the world. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, she was remembered as both a political dynamo and a ruthless leader who earned her nickname as “the Iron Lady.” That steely reputation was solidified in 1990, when Thatcher was ousted by her own party and resigned after more than a decade as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But only now, reports Alan Travis for The Guardian, have documents emerged that illustrate just what Thatcher’s resignation meant for the world.

The British National Archives just released papers from 1989 and 1990, the last two years of Thatcher's tenure as prime minister. They reveal that Thatcher’s resignation, while anticipated and even celebrated in the U.K., sent shock waves through the administrations of both U.S. and Soviet leaders. As Travis reports, both U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev were quick to express their sorrow and shock.

A note from Charles Powell, who was Thatcher’s private secretary, expresses more than dismay from Kissinger, who was apparently taken aback by Thatcher’s resignation. The Secretary of State “telephoned me in a very emotional state,” writes Powell. “It was worse than a death in the family…nobody outside Britain—indeed nobody outside Westminster—could understand how your fellow Conservatives could have done this.”

Gorbachev, in turn, addressed Thatcher as "Margaret" for the first time in response to the news. Despite a friendly message, Gorbachev’s letter was accompanied by a note that the Soviet ambassador reported that he had received the news with “great consternation,” sending an advisor out of a key meeting to find out “what on earth was going on and how such a thing could be possible.” Indeed, wrote Powell, “there was a certain irony. Five years ago they had party coups in the Soviet Union and elections in Britain. Now it seemed to be the other way round.”

But though the end of Thatcher’s tenure was a surprise around the world, it was anything but in Britain. Thatcher had long been a divisive figure, but she alienated many of her own party members when she insisted on a poll tax that triggered riots throughout England and turned into a PR disaster for the Conservative Party.

As the BBC reports, Thatcher had to stand down from her role as prime minister when her own cabinet finally turned against her because of the poll tax and disagreements on how the U.K. should handle its relationship to Europe. As Quartz’s Eshe Nelson notes, the events of those years mirror those of today, especially as British officials wrestle with the country’s vote to exit the European Union.

In a press release, Britain’s National Archives notes that the years covered in the documents it has unsealed were “eventful.” Indeed, 1989 and 1990 included not just Thatcher’s resignation, but a number of momentous historical events, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the fall of multiple Communist governments and the Berlin Wall.

The papers concerning Thatcher’s resignation are a fascinating glimpse into a world teetering on the edge of political change. The announcement sparked letters from leaders and diplomats around the world, praising her tenure as prime minister and recapping some of her achievements while in office. The dignitaries who reached out are who’s who of the era’s most important leaders—officials with whom Thatcher worked closely and often differed.

The archival release also contains other revelations about the “Iron Lady,” from her hatred of raves to her apprehension about the reunification of Germany and the restoration of Germany as a superpower. It also contains personal notes from Thatcher that give insight into her loyalties and priorities. Years after her death, Thatcher’s legacy remains hotly contested—but all can agree that her power still resonates, as shown first-hand through the papers she left behind.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.